Stephen di Renza discovers it takes a village - and a convoy of donkeys - to restore a house in the historic medina of Fez
Text by Ian Phillips - Photography by Henri Bourne
It all started with a trip to the dentist. In 1999, Stephen Di Renza had surgery in Paris and couldn't eat for a month. “After a couple of weeks”, he recalls, “I just wanted to go somewhere to read and be quiet”. He heard of a new guesthouse that had just opened at the heart of Fez in northern Morocco and decided to give it a try. He immediately fell in love with the city.
“What is great is the tranquillity and the feeling that it really hasn't been touched by time”, he enthuses. “There's a great authenticity to it. It's a medieval site and if you take away the satellite dishes, it doesn't feel like a lot's changed. There have been attempts to accommodate automobiles in the medina, but they never worked”. His words echo those of the 20th-century travel writers, Jerome and Jean Tharaud, who viewed Fez as “the site of a miracle, of the suppression of the passage of time”.
As you wander through the old city's almost bewildering labyrinth of tiny alleyways, that's still very much the case. Donkeys are laden down with paving stones or Coke tins, the gutters of the food market are replete with fresh chicken blood and almost everywhere you look, there are craftsmen in tiny workshops using age-old, Medieval techniques… tanners, blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers.
During his very first visit, Paris-based Di Renza determined to buy himself a “little retreat” at the heart of the medina. What he came across was a three-story structure originally built as a guesthouse in the late 18th century by a rich merchant. Although not large by Moroccan standards (the plot measures 1400 square feet), it is both vertiginously high and highly ornate. “He probably housed his clients there”, explains Di Renza. “So, it was meant to impress and has all the details—a fountain, very fine plaster carving, beautiful painted ceilings—that one would find in a larger house”.
The previous owner was an ailing, elderly man with two wives. “He wanted to sell the house because he was afraid of inheritance problems”, recounts Di Renza. He did so just in time. “I came, I signed the papers and he died two days later”. Part of the transaction consisted of handing over the deeds of the house, which date from 1840. Di Renza had them framed and placed in the entrance hall and on one wall of the master bedroom.
Before that, however, he had to carry out a certain amount of restoration work. Over the years, little respect had been paid to the house's architectural heritage. There was a huge TV set in the fountain, the marble courtyard had been covered with granito in the Seventies and the kitchen was quite simply “a disaster”. “The humidity had gotten under it and it was rotting”, recalls Di Renza. Then, there was the paint that had been splashed all over the place. All the wrought iron work was silver and the woodwork a brilliant turquoise. To strip it all, Di Renza hired up to 75 people, who worked away with Q-tips. He even flew over a painter restorer friend, who works for the Louvre, to teach them the correct technique.
He had more difficulty finding someone to clean all the tile work. “All the locals just said, ‘Let's rip it out and replace it'”. Keen to retain as much original detailing as possible, Di Renza set to work himself with a tiny metal brush and paint remover. He also devised the telescopic sliding glass roof to protect the open courtyard in the event of rain and reworked some of the ceiling heights so that both the upper two stories could comfortably accommodate bedrooms. On the second floor, a meter of rubble was removed from one of the wings. “That was one of the most expensive things because it had to be taken away by donkey”, he asserts. “One meter of rubble meant hundreds and hundreds of donkeys!
It must all have seemed like a hundred of miles away from his upbringing too. Born in Philadelphia in 1960, Di Renza originally studied film at NYU before taking a job as a fashion stylist for Interview magazine in the early Eighties. Among other things, he has since spent three years in Hanoi developing products for Habitat, worked as a fashion director for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman and as design director for Dunhill. Since quitting the latter in mid-2005, he has been busy initiating a book project on the history of men's fashion.
Traces of his various past lives can be found throughout the house in Fez. The courtyard table was made by sawing the top off a Dunhill display unit and a wall in one of the two guest bedrooms is decorated with in-store visuals developed with Japanese photographer Keiichi Tahara. In the sitting room are celadon pottery prototypes conceived for Habitat. There are also a number of other Asian artifacts—the Vietnamese desk in the office-cum-dining room, the rosewood ceiling fan in the master bathroom and the early 20th-century Chinese temple banner in the master bedroom. Mixed in with these are pieces of vintage English and French furniture, as well as a few Moroccan touches, such as the pop-like portrait of a young Hassan II in the kitchen and the traditional shepherd's garments used to cover the banquettes on the roof terrace.
One of Di Renza's favorite decorating tricks is recycling old objects and giving them new functions. Here, he turned an old jug into a light fixture for the fountain, a vintage doctor's cabinet into a set of kitchen drawers and a coal bin into a medicine cabinet. His antique hunting also resulted in some really cool finds. Some of the best came from what he calls his “Sunday souks”—local country markets. “They are my favorite thing in the world to do”, he insists. “When I find things, I'm tickled to death”. One time, he snapped up an original Eero Saarinen Tulip dining table for a paltry five dollars!
When in Fez, his weekly trip to the souks constitutes one of his rare outings. Mostly, he's to be found whiling his time away on the roof terrace. “In my head, it's always been a place to come to read, write and relax”, he says. He also loves for his friends to borrow the house and has lent it twice as a wedding gift. Others who fancy a taste of life in the medina can rent it through Travel Intelligence (www.travelintelligence.net). Perhaps they will come away with the same impression as writer Paul Bowles. In a 1984 text, he described the typical prosperous Fez dwelling as “a miniature paradise totally shielded from the gaze of the world”. For Di Renza, his house is exactly that!